It's the kind of thing you don't hardly see anymore, my brother commented while he watched the A&E Live By Request show with Johnny Mathis. One guy singing by himself in front of an orchestra with no dancing or theatrics. Rare indeed. At 72, Mathis is one of the youngest and perhaps the last of the true Black male vocalists. This is a fact made painfully obvious by all the death dates on the listings below. Let's take a brief look at some of his contemporaries, those who came before him, as well as those who follow in his footsteps who are worth noting:
Herb Jeffries (1912- )
Herb Jeffries was the first black singing cowboy. They called him the "Bronze Buckaroo". Suave and debonair, still so today at the incredible age of 95, as you can see! He is of mixed heritage and speaks French fluently. He began his singing career with the Duke Ellington Orchestra, and he had his first hit record with "Flamingo" which sold millions. These days he works once a month, is an avid golfer (like Mathis), has eaten no meat in almost 60 years. He's a devotee of yoga, which he claims saved him from surgery for a bad back he got after surviving a plane crash flying to Vegas for a concert date. And, as late as 1996, he was still making movies! Visit his website, learn about this great pioneer.
Arthur Prysock (1929-1997)
If you're my age, you probably know Arthur Prysock best from the Lowenbrau beer commercials way back when...("Tonight, tonight, let it be Lowenbrau...") His popular hits were It's Too Late, Baby, Too Late (1965), When Love Was New (1976), and one of his last was This Guy's in Love With You (1988). He started out, like a lot of them did, playing Harlem clubs, sometimes touring with his brother Red Prysock. He's performed with Count Basie, though, too.
Sammy Davis, Jr. (1925-1990)
I'd have to kick myself mighty hard if I left this man out....he was, quite simply, the Master! I am SO GLAD I captured him on video tape on Evening at Pops a couple years before his death of throat cancer...and I also have a PBS re-broadcast of one of his many television specials, as well as a very comprehensive boxed set of his music. Watch this clip and you will see, the man was incomparable as Mr. Bojangles! A long time ago I adopted one of his hits as my anthem, "whether I'm right, or whether I'm wrong, whether I find a place in this world or never belong, I've got to be me, I've got to be free..."
Billy Eckstine (1914-1993)
I understand that in his day, "Mr. B" was not one to be trifled with, and wasn't above slapping a woman around every now and then. It seems to me that after his friend and protegé, Sarah Vaughan, died in 1990, it seems he went downhill fast. But maybe that's the romantic in me (as startling as it is to discover that I would have romantic tendencies!) . They were platonic friends, anyway, to my knowledge. Still, it just about killed me to see him in the PBS tribute to "The Divine One". Like Mathis he had a budding sports career in his youth, but an injury steered him toward music. He fronted his own orchestra, and worked with others, too, especially some of the great jazz outfits of the 30's and 40's. His hits songs were I Apologize, and Passing Strangers, a duet with Ms. Vaughan. Not surprisingly for a man this good looking, he's been in a couple movies and documentaries as well, like Rhythm in a Riff and JoJo Dancer, Your Life is Calling with Richard Pryor.
Joe Williams (1918-1999) I'm so glad I've got him on tape...like Sammy Davis, and Mathis, he was also on Evening at Pops. He started out as a vocalist with the Count Basie orchestra. On TV, he played Grandpa Al on the Cosby Show (the one from the 80's; there were several Cosby shows, I have to specify.) His signature song was Everyday I Have The Blues. He continued to work literally up until he died. He was a man who chose to go out on his own terms. Read more about the great Joe Williams.
Lou Rawls (1935-2006)
This was the "natural man"! That's the song I remember as a child. Lou Rawls' deep resonating voice is as unmistakable as Mathis' is...I've heard this voice on TV, in movies, in commercials. He was a background singer for Sam Cooke (you can hear him quite clearly in "Bring it On Home To Me", yeah!) But I believe it was Love Is A Hurting Thing that was his first big solo hit. Then in the 70's oddly enough, be became a disco king with You'll Never Find Another Love Like Mine and Lady Love. Rawls had a TV show briefly in the early 70's. (It almost seems everybody did.) Never one to forget from whence he came, he hosted the UNCF Telethon every year, helping to raise more than 100 million dollars for that particular cause. Yes, the acting bug had bitten him, too, a time or two. Most recently, I suppose, his singing was featured in the "Garfield" animated specials. Lou Rawls had at least one platinum and six gold albums and at least one gold single. His family continues to maintain his tastefully-done website, www.lourawls.com, so please visit it. He was extraordinary.
They called him the Ice Man. Some say it's because he was so "cool". My mother used to say it was because he didn't do anything but stand there on stage! Whatever the reason, this singer-turned-politician had one of the greatest voices of the early rock-n-roll era. Who can listen to For Your Precious Love and not get goosebumps? That song was co-written by a then-18-year old Butler and 17-year-old Curtis Mayfield and recorded by the Impressions, for whom Butler sang lead. In later life, he's a Cook County Commissioner in Chicago; but I understand he hasn't completely left the music scene. In fact, I believe he's got a new CD out. This link gives as good a description as any as to what Butler is up to these days.
Al Hibbler (1915-2001 )
Al Hibbler was the first blind performer to achieve large-scale popularity, which makes him a predecessor of sorts to Ray Charles. He had a deep, Southern voice. He tried out for Duke Ellington's orchestra, came drunk and didn't get the job the first time. He played for another band for a while, then reapplied with Ellington, wrote a song for him called Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me. This time he was hired, and he was the lead singer for the Ellington Orchestra for 8 years. One of his hit songs was After the Lights Go Down Low. Also, Al Hibbler had the original number 1 recording of Unchained Melody
Clifton Davis Nat "King" Cole (1917-1965) Roy Hamilton (1929-1969) Earl Grant (1933-1970) Clint Holmes Luther Vandross (1951-2005)
I was a HUGE fan of the Jackson Five, especially Michael, as a youngster; I was shocked to learn that one of the old guys who had his own TV show wrote one of their biggest songs, "Never Can Say Goodbye" (also covered very well by Mathis on his
Nobody, not even Mathis, sang like this man. He did so much for black entertainers, took a lot of abuse and heat, but in doing so, made things so much better for others to come, like Mathis, as well as even for his contemporaries. He could put his foot down and initiate some change in attitudes. All Black artists, including Mathis, owe this man big time.
His big score was "You'll Never Walk Alone". His was the original "Ebb Tide" and "Unchained Melody" which were covered by The Righteous Brothers and of course sold better. A boxer-turned-singer, he sort of sounded like that other famous boxer/singer, Jackie Wilson. Hamilton had both classical and gospel training, it seems, and I understand he even studied commercial art! Truly a well-rounded individual. He had a relatively short career, because he wasn't that healthy. In fact, he had to retire for two years from 1956-1958 because of exhaustion. Hamilton died from a stroke at the age of 40.
An Oklahoma City native, he was a dead ringer for Nat Cole, vocally....in fact when most people hear the song "The End", which was a big hit in October of 1958, they think it's Nat Cole...BUT IT'S NOT! Earl Grant died in a car wreck in 1970, and he never really made it big.
Clint Holmes had a cute song I liked when I was a kid called "Playground in My Mind". (It went, "My name is Michael, I've got a nickel, I've got a nickel shiny and new; I'm gonna buy a whole lot of candy, that's what I'm gonna do...") Well, being nine and unsophisticated when that came out, I was impressed! His voice reminds me a little of Englebert Humperdinck. This British import has got to be in his 50's now, I believe, and he's a very versatile performer who's not afraid to dance! These days, he does a lot of Vegas shows.
Luther had never been "pop" vocalist in the traditional sense of the word. He's here because of genius, and because I loved him. I can't believe he's gone.
Copyright ©2007 Iris Gross Georg Back to Table of Contents
Nat "King" Cole (1917-1965)
Roy Hamilton (1929-1969)
Earl Grant (1933-1970)
Luther Vandross (1951-2005)